The Silent Violence of the South

My grandfather was almost killed in a city at sunset. I never met him, but I remember my grandmother telling how he sometimes took t...


My grandfather was almost killed in a city at sunset.

I never met him, but I remember my grandmother telling how he sometimes took trips across the country. On many of these trips, he might find himself in a city he didn’t know, and he had to find accommodation before dark, because… well, he might find himself in a city when the sun was setting.

In cities at sunset, blacks were relatively free to move around during the day. But once the sun went down, they risked being arrested, beaten and sometimes killed, simply because of the color of their skin. Oklahoma City where I live now was one of those places. Sometimes the founders and leaders of the Sunset Cities tried to rationalize their treatment of people by talking about the threat of crime that followed black people. But really, it was just a way to keep people who looked like me in their place.

The story goes that one night my grandfather found himself in one of these towns. He had to keep driving for hours until he found a place that would allow him to spend the night. He never met a policeman, fortunately. If he had, he could have been arrested or killed. This is the kind of danger that black people in the American South have always faced – and this treatment didn’t stop with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.

Mamie Murray, the author's grandmother.
Mamie Murray, the author’s grandmother.

There have been the overt acts of violence, lynchings and racial massacres, which America is only beginning to accept. But for Americans whose skin has been kissed by the sun, there have always been other forms of violence.

There was the sexual violence inflicted on black women that happened far more often than was reported. There was the economic violence that pushed black children into underfunded and understaffed schools – and then people wondered why these children were doing so poorly in school, when in reality those in power had set the conditions that made it inevitable. But the most prevalent form of violence in the South was what I like to call silent malice. Let me explain.

My mother was born in an isolated community in southeastern Oklahoma. When I was in college, my mother was a student, and every summer she sent me to my grandmother, who still lived in this community, so that she could study. My cousins ​​and I would run around the country those summers, but whenever a white man visited my grandmother’s house, we had to be quiet and, as my grandmother said, “act as if we had A little common sense”. If we were ever in a store and encountered white people, even ones we didn’t know, we had to call them “Mr.” or “Miss”. Noticing that we didn’t express the same courtesy to black people, I once asked my grandmother why we had to do this.

“Well, baby,” she sighed, leaning back. “That’s how things are here. You’re from the city, so you don’t have to do this in town. But here you would get slapped, or worse, if you spoke to them differently.

I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me then, but I understand now.

See, somewhere around 1865, after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, white people – feeling that they no longer wielded as much power as before – created Black Codes.

“Black people know that if things get too upset, if they talk too loudly, physical violence isn’t far behind.”

“Across the South,” notes a report by the Vera Institute of Justice“Black codes were enacted that prohibit behaviors common to blacks, such as ‘walking aimlessly’ or ‘walking at night,’ hunting on Sundays, or settling on public or private land.”

These arbitrary laws paved the way for the rampant incarceration rate of black men in the South. And even after the end of Jim Crow, there was always an order to things.

The blacks were in a position of inferiority and the whites continued their reign of terror. This still manifests itself today in countless forms. The South has been slow to evolve. Southern racism ensues. The violence is rooted in the South; the same goes for the story of the loss.

The American South communicates to black people in many ways that we are only tolerated, not welcome. Confederate monuments, for example: you can’t go to a single Southern state without finding either a monument to a Confederate soldier, or a street or building named after a Confederate leader. It might seem, to some, as if the Black Lives Matter movement has destroyed all traces of America’s Confederate heritage, but that’s simply not true. While the Black Uprising helped bring down or rename some 73 Confederate monuments, more than 700 more remain.

Left: An African-American passenger exits the
Left: An African-American passenger walks out of the “colorful waiting room” at the Trailway Bus Terminal in Jackson, Mississippi. Right: A black woman is led out of a ‘white waiting room’ in Jackson, May 25, 1961. She arrived on the Freedom Bus to protest the racial segregation of passengers on buses nationwide.

It doesn’t stop there either. According to a study by Southern Poverty Law Center“there are more roads (741) honoring Confederates than monuments.” And as the report notes, “as well as schools (201), counties and municipalities (104), parks (38), buildings (51), vacations (22), military bases (10), commemorative license plates (7), bodies of water (6) and bridges (6), these places do important cultural work to reinforce white supremacy.

The majority of these statues, these reminders of American brutality, are found in the South, although they can be found elsewhere. Racism is a national problem, but it’s the South that never lets America forget how savage we were. Many white Southerners continue to vote against their own interests for no other reason than to hurt people of color. The Republicans “Southern strategy,” as famous articulated by Lee Atwater in 1981, worked fine. Republicans knew that if they could get racists to vote for the GOP, they would capture the South for a generation or more. So Atwater, who would later chair the Republican National Committee, made it clear:

You start in 1954 saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” In 1968, you can no longer say “nigger” – it hurts you, turns against you. So you say things like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that, and you get so abstract. Now you’re talking about lowering taxes, and all of these things that you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of that is that black people are mistreated more than white people… “We want to reduce that”, it’s way more abstract than even the bus thing, uh, and way more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Despite all this, Southern blacks were still expected to treat whites with deference, and most blacks quietly followed suit. Those who rebelled against this order often grew frustrated and left the South, or were labeled as troublemakers. This state of affairs still persists today in certain small towns in the South. And although this culture of intimidation is not violent on its face, it is indirectly supported by the threat of violence. Black people know that if things get too upset, if they talk too loudly, physical violence is not far behind. And this fear of physical violence itself becomes another, more insidious form of violence. This leads to altered behavior and doubts, a constant bitter taste in the back of the throat. Knowing that at any time someone can weaponize their whiteness and step in to control black behavior – that’s violence.

In the 1980s, a black man (whose name I won’t use here, so as not to endanger him again) became frustrated with the silent nastiness that darkened his life. In Harris, Oklahoma, he refused to call white people “sir” and “ma’am.” He refused to give the whites the right of way on the road. He refused to water down his words with self-mockery when addressing them. He was a local basketball star, but he was still beaten to a pulp one summer evening because white people thought he was too arrogant. This quiet naughtiness is real, and there are ramifications for stepping too far out of line.

We have focused so much on police killings and other forms of overt violence that permeate urban black American life that we have lost sight of the silent wickedness that colors every waking moment of black life in the rural south.

The twilight cities, black codes and silent violence of the South still exist. They thrive in the shadows of the night, hiding like an observer – waiting for you to step out of line so they can show you how real they still are.



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Newsrust - US Top News: The Silent Violence of the South
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